Brexit proposals could be a shot in the arm for local ports, conference hears
Boris Johnson's Brexit plans could spell good news for Northern Ireland's ports, according to an industry body.
Reports suggest the UK and EU negotiating teams have agreed in principle that there will be a customs border down the Irish Sea, but Northern Ireland will legally remain within the UK's customs territory.
Richard Ballantyne, the chief executive of the British Ports Association (BPA), said this could see a spike in traffic at local ports because "hauliers use the path of least resistance".
"They won't want to be held up by bureaucratic checks, especially if they're carrying cargoes that have environmentally sensitive things," he added.
"Going through domestic services where customs controls are aligned would be preferable because the southern routes, such as Dublin to Holyhead, could be subject to these customs controls.
"There could be some modal shift north which, if you operate a port in Wales, you might be a bit uncomfortable with, but in Northern Ireland you could see a slight spike in traffic.
"The sensitive part is those health controls which we haven't had for domestic services other than emergencies.
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"We don't fully know what will happen, but we are concerned about potential stoppages and controls we haven't had before."
Mr Ballantyne, who was attending the BPA conference in Belfast, stressed Northern Ireland could also benefit from plans to introduce free ports - zones where there is little to no tax - after Brexit.
The BPA chief executive said all four major ports here would have a good business case to be chosen.
"I wouldn't say one particular port over another, but we're here in Belfast, (so) look at the way the river winds through the city and how pivotal the geography of the city is to linking up to the port itself," he added.
"Northern Ireland's biggest economy is Belfast and the port is a big part of that, so they have a great offer and opportunity."
Mr Ballantyne further explained how a free port would actually operate in practice.
"By designating an area around a port or airport as a free trade area, effectively you wouldn't need to undertake all the paperwork and other things, which means you can feed products into free trade areas, add some value to them, manufacture them into something and then ship them or export them somewhere else," he said.
"If you package these custom elements with preferential planning regimes, along with other stimulus like lower business rates, you get a port zoning policy."
However, the industry expert warned that just 10 ports in the UK would be granted this status if the plans went ahead.
"We have 140 cargo-handling ports in the UK," he said.
"Politically managing the selection will ensure each region will have at least one, so one for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.
"The criteria has not been set yet, but the Government is committed to this plan."
Belfast Telegraph Digital